Tuesday 29 September 2009

Just a two-thirds for me please, mate

Would you order two-thirds of a pint? It seems that soon we might be able to. I like the idea in principle but the more I consider it the less I think it has going for it. As I commented on Tandleman’s blog, this could be a good thing for premium strength beers or for those people who have to drive and want a beer (a pint is too much of most beers to stay under the limit, but two-thirds just scrapes it). But my question is why bring out a two-third measure? Is it to cut down the volumes people drink? Or, is it, as the press release suggests, to add more flexibility to what volumes people can drink?

It may add flexibility but how many people will order two-thirds of a pint? A half is at least a credible measure, but two-thirds… It’s almost like saying I’ll have two-thirds of a pizza (what about the rest of it?!). The jump in volume (100ml more than a half, 190ml less than a pint) is not significant enough to make most go for two-thirds over a full, handsome, to the brim pint, or a cheeky little half for the road. On top of this, will many pubs even serve two-thirds? The Rake is the only bar I know that even sells thirds, and that is a very specialist beer bar. Other than that, I only know of a few larger beer festivals which offer thirds as a measure. Will two-thirds be any different to the third?

Maybe a two-third can be saved for stronger beers (6% ABV, say), but is this really likely? For 6%-8%, maybe, but beyond this wouldn’t you just go for a half? I don’t think this is about the beer in the glass and I don’t think it comes off the back of binge drinking, so it’s just about consumer choice, it seems.

Another thing, which I’ve only noticed while working on this, is how awkward it is to say, think and write ‘two-thirds’; it just doesn’t feel right and it doesn’t sit well with me - I can't imagine ever ordering one.

One important point is that British drinking revolves around the pint glass. Us beer geeks drink thoughtlessly by the half, but in reality – in the actual pub – how many people order half pints? Maybe it’s stoic machismo, maybe it’s just habit, but we go to the pub for a few pints. The pint won’t be lost because if it is then it’ll take the soul of British beer with it, but can it work alongside a slightly smaller glass? For me, this whole two-third-thing falls on the questions: who will order two-thirds of a pint? And, why will they order it? I don’t know the answer to either.

Sunday 27 September 2009

A New Wave of Brewing

Are we in a New Wave of brewing? A period of transgressive and innovative beer making, breaking from traditions but still looking back to traditional brewing, producing impressive and experimental beers, pushing new boundaries and attempting new techniques in terms of the making and the marketing of beer, all done with a wide and deep knowledge of world beer.

The innovation of the extremely knowledgeable French Nouvelle Vague auteurs massively influenced Hollywood cinema in the 1960s and early 1970s, creating what’s now known as New Hollywood. The Nouvelle Vague was a small group of filmmakers, producing, writing and directing their own films, using new techniques, breaking the traditions of Classical Hollywood and having their own stamp of authorship. Now, in brewing terms, it’s the go-ahead US craft beer market which are the leaders of this movement and they are influencing Europe (although the US took the traditions of European beer and made it their own to begin), but the ideas are still the same: small groups of brewers, pushing each other forward, exciting and exuberant, articulate and literate in the language of beer, each with their own authoritative stamp which makes the drinker know that they’ve just enjoyed a beer by that particular brewery, whether it’s the taste alone or the combination of taste, concept and packaging/marketing.

Dogfish Head are at the forefront of this ‘movement’ in the US and always have been – they are the Jean-Luc Godard of beer. The beer itself, the brand, the marketing, it all points towards a New Wave. Their 60, 90 and 120 Minute IPAs use the innovative technique of continual hopping (see: Godard’s jump cuts). They use fruit, they use ingredients from all over the world and they recreate old styles and recipes, using the old and bringing it right up to date with a postmodern twist (see: Godard’s A bout de souffle). You watch a Godard film and you know it’s a Godard film; you drink a Dogfish Head beer and you know it’s a Dogfish Head beer (see: Pierrot le Fou, drink: 90 Minute IPA). BrewDog and Thornbridge are the UK equivalent, pushing boundaries, innovating (see: Dennis Hopper, Quentin Tarantino, drink: Punk IPA, Jaipur).

In Britain - and beyond - Brat Packs of brewers are coming up and they are getting more aware of what is going on around the world. For the British Brat Pack, gone are the days of a best bitter, pale ale and stout plus a few seasonals. Gone, that is, but not forgotten. The beers are still there, it’s just that they are different now - better, new and improved upon; strengthening the core range of beers and adding exciting seasonals and one-offs, packing flavor and punch and drinkablility. These younger brewers are beer-literate and know exactly what is going on around the world; they drink beers from all over the world, they are aware of styles and new techniques and they use this knowledge to create new brews. The beers are creations of their maker; their authorship is written throughout the beer, it’s made by them, the realisation of an idea, a piece of fluid, consumable art.

The actual brewing process is an intrinsic part of this New Wave, where new techniques break from traditions or norms, or old techniques are used in new ways: mash hopping and adding hops at different stages of the brew, different types of barrel aging, exotic ingredients, new ingredients (hop varieties, etc), high strength, high bitterness. And this transcends beer styles too, where new styles are ‘created’ and old styles recreated: ‘imperial’ this and that, doubles and triples, porters and IPAs, wild ales, milds, bitters… It’s taking something old and pushing it into the now, changing its appeal or increasing its appeal to those who already know about it.

This year, I think, has seen a great increase in quality and range of British beer (71 new breweries opening, for starters), particularly from a few smaller, edgy younger breweries, all of whom are very knowledgeable about world beer, eager to try new things and create new beers in the mould of the US craft beer market. This British New Wave includes Thornbridge, BrewDog, Ramsgate, Marble, DarkStar and Oakham, among others. What marks these out is their range and variety. They don’t just brew me-too bitters and limp pale ales. They also don’t just go all-out and brew a range of tongue-thumping 7% IPAs and barrel-aged whatevers; they have a distinctly British slant to their beers, whether it’s wonderful 4% hoppy session ales, punchy-fruity bitters or full-bodied and rich 5% stouts, they fit the pub market and the craft beer market. Then beyond the pub it transforms: it’s the wicked imperial porters aged in Islay whisky casks or double IPAs or strong ales aged in oak barrels which used to hold rum or cider or brandy or sherry. It’s a happy collusion of British reserve and balls-out American super-sizing (and the Americans, in turn, are creating session ales and low-ABV brews to satisfy the drinker who doesn’t like to go 100mph all the time).

Then there’s Europe. Belgian brewers have discovered C-hops. Denmark, led by Mikkeller, is blazing a funky trail of hops and monster stouts. Italy is quietly busy creating some awesomely good beers using different ingredients and adding their own sense of style and flair (and in the same way that the Italian Neo-Realist period influenced the Nouvelle Vague, so it is that the craft beer market in Italy is one of the most interesting and innovative in the world). The New Wave is lapping and crashing at the shores of the brewing world and it’s a very exciting time to be a beer drinker.

The thing with being in a movement is that we often don’t realise until it’s over and can look at it retrospectively. If this is the case, and we are at the ends of the ‘movement’, then what happens next? Will we see a simplification of beer (small ranges of excellent beers, simple, effective)? Or, like Hollywood cinema at that time, will we see a period of huge Blockbusters following the burst of creativity and innovation that was the Nouvelle Vague (in other words, will Bud create a pale ale with 60IBUs for the mass market, following the commercial successes of breweries like Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head and Stone, and/or, will the craft brewers try to get into the mainstream market by brewing simple, quality lagers – BrewDog’s 77 in Tesco, for example)? Are we in a New Wave of British and world brewing? Or is this whole thing just the natural progression of brewing along its own course?

I knew writing my undergraduate dissertation on the early films of Jean-Luc Godard and the Nouvelle Vague would come in useful one day, and here it is.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Firsty Stuff

This is the first blog from my new flat. Don’t expect any top-notch blogging tonight, it’s just a me me me post, plus I’m trying out the new laptop I bought (first post from this too). I’ve got a cool little table with a great rooftop view over Tonbridge - there’s the castle in the background and a little old fire station in the middle, there’s endlessly interesting chimneys and roof tiles, there’s houses far away in the distance creeping up the hill to Tunbridge Wells, and there’s also a lot of pigeons, which most of the time sound like they are in the final throes of death, gawking, flapping, retching.

I’ve been moving the final things in all day, then putting up flat pack and watching the delivery guys struggle to carry a very heavy sofa up four flights of stairs. Right now I’m totally knackered, I’m dirty, I’m hungry and I’m very, very thirsty. One of the first things I did, of course, was fill the fridge with beer (currently it has eight bottles of beer and a can of diet coke, that’s all). I expect I’ll drink quite a lot tonight as I sort everything out and try and find places for all my stuff.

Anyway, just a quick one, more for me than for you, I guess. I’ll be back to proper blogging soon (although, the joys of a blog are the personal touches, so a little insight is good every now and then, don’t you think?). Oh, and the first beer I plan on drinking? See if you can guess… This picture might help.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Bottle Tops

I like bottle tops. I collect them, I guess. It’s the bottle’s crown, the last thing you see before breaking in and pouring it out and there’s plenty of scope for creativity. Some of the tops are plain or just plain boring. I don’t care for these one bit. Make an effort, that’s what I say. But some are really quite handsome. I tend to hoard them for a few months then go through a mass cull, keeping the fancier few. Maybe one day I’ll try and frame them or something.

Here are some of my favourites. And out of interest, does anyone else do this? Or are you a label peeler or bottle collector? Or is just a note and a tick in a book enough?

Monday 21 September 2009

Innis & Gunn

Innis & Gunn was one of the first beers I found myself drinking regularly when I made the switch from lager to ale. Since then I’ve found that it’s been the beer which has continually been able to convert others. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s because it looks a bit fancy? Maybe it’s just because it tastes so different to cans of lager. Maybe it’s the creamy sweetness that does it. Who knows.

In my early drinking days I got all excited about every new Innis & Gunn in its lovely box. I think I’ve had eight different I&Gs, including an IPA, Blonde, the Rum Cask, the Triple Matured, Canadian Oak and a couple of ‘vintages’. My favourite was always the Cask Strength version which was 7.7% and came in a red box. I served it with a vanilla crème brulee once and that was simply perfect.

But I hadn’t had an Original for ages and my taste has changed a lot since then. It also seems that my memory has warped and turned the beer from wonderful to weird, something I used to like but not anymore. But I couldn’t remember so I bought a bottle to find out for definite.

It had probably been two years since I had my last bottle of Original I&G and I expected to be taken straight back to my first taste of it but instead it just tasted alien. It wasn’t as sweet as I remembered but it was everything else I expected - oaky yet smooth, slightly buttery and toasty with a definite citrusy finish to it – yet it just didn’t taste right. A few years ago this was such a familiar flavour but I didn’t really enjoy drinking it this time around (maybe I just didn’t like it, maybe it was because it didn’t taste how I wanted it to, maybe I was expecting not to like it...).

It seems that I&G is a polarising beer in a love/hate kind of way (I think it’s the buttery sweetness that gets the thumbs up or down). I love it for getting me started on other beers but the taste just didn’t live up to the memory that I had of it. I’ve got another bottle in the cupboard so maybe I’ll give it one more try before I completely write it off. But the question is: Innis & Gunn, yes or no?

And here’s some bonus material: a video I shot in July of the Canadian Oak I&G (sent to me by R&R). I remember enjoying this one a lot more than the Original.

Sunday 20 September 2009

What Eye've Been Doing This Weekend...

This blog is pretty lazy and all about me, although to keep it on topic I’ll add the beers which punctuated my long, strange weekend. It started on Friday morning. Lauren and I got the keys to our new flat. We had to be down there early and then move as much as possible in. We are on the third floor of a new block of apartments, so the whole moving in thing is a real pig – literally six doors to walk through, half push, half pull, all bloody heavy. Then, just as we got it all in, I had to shoot off to have a re-treatment of some laser eye surgery (I recommend laser eye surgery to anyone!). I wasn’t much good for anything after that so I just got pissed lying on the sofa.

Saturday I started by sorting out the beer cupboards (some pics here). That was a harrowing job. Then I had to go for a post-op eye check-up and feeling good about my new and improved vision I diverted to The Bull on the way home and shared a couple of beers with my Dad. We also happened to find Brad (from the newly re-launched Ale Affinity) propping up the bar. A couple of cracking beers were drunk – Moor Merlin's Magic and Oakham Akhenaten, the Oakham was particularly awesome and devilishly hoppy. Then I went a riotous(!) 45th wedding anniversary (the band literally played, like, two songs from the last 45 years, and both of those had a very unwelcome county-twist) and drank kegged Courage Dark Mild, which couldn’t really have been further away from the Oakham beer if it was a tree.

Today I’ve spent seven hours putting together flat-packed furniture - a bed and a wardrobe. I hate Argos. Not because there was anything wrong with what I bought, I just hate them because it took seven hours. Thank god my Dad was there to do all the difficult stuff while I held the ends up and banged in a couple of nails. We did manage a lunchtime pint in the local Wetherspoons – a floral-fruity Oakham Mompesson's Gold, which restored my love and faith in good old JDW (thankfully as the pub is five minutes walk from my door).

Right now I’m knackered. And my eye is sore. In fact, I shouldn’t even be looking at a computer screen. But I’m drinking Tokyo* and it’s every bit as good as I remember it being, so that’s making me feel a whole lot better. Although the prospect of a crazy week lies ahead – three days left at my current job, then fully move in, make up more shelves and try and get the delivery men to carry a three-seater sofa up to the third floor, all before starting my new job a week tomorrow. I might not be around much this week…

Friday 18 September 2009

Beer Floats

I’ve attempted a couple of beer floats before but never had anything 'wow' inducing. I think my problem is that I just want to drink the beer and eat the ice cream separately, rather than risking a strange looking mess in a glass and ruining two perfectly good treats. But I am curious, you see, about things like this.

It’s one of those frequently recurring topics on the forums of RateBeer and BeerAdvocate - What’s your favourite beer float? – and it always gets me thinking about which beers could work with which ice creams.

Following a post from Boak and Bailey, I made myself a Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout and vanilla ice cream float. It’s one of those ‘beginners’ floats that I’d wanted to try for a while now. I suspected that the full, rich body of the beer (you need it full and rich or it might all get a bit cold-soupy and insipid) would be perfect for the ice cream as it melts into the darkness of the stout, leaving a sweet, creamy, fun treat.

The result was good. To begin it was all beer and little ice cream, which only succeeded in pointing out the hop bitterness and adding an unwelcome carbonation, but as it melted together things got a lot more interesting. The roasty, chocolatey beer swirled with the ice cream into a great beery dessert, leaving it thick and smooth, cold, rich, slightly boozy and just a little naughty. But it has to melt first, or it’s just a stray ball of ice cream in your beer, and that’s just a little odd to begin. And share it too, beer and desserts are both made for sharing. Of course, the other option is to scoop out the ice cream into a bowl and pour a little beer over the top, that works wonderfully too.

Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout and vanilla ice cream was a good combo, but I think there are better ones to be had. Hops are pretty much a no-go, causing such a tremendous accident that it’s just not worth bothering, instead a strong coffee stout could be excellent with a milk chocolate ice cream, Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout and vanilla would be another good one, as would BrewDog’s Tokyo, with or without the *, and with vanilla ice cream. Or what about using beer ice cream in a float? RipTide ice cream, perhaps.

Does this kind of thing float your boat or is it a waste of good beer and good ice cream? Have you had any good beer floats? What do you think would make a good one?

Thursday 17 September 2009

Bitten Bullet Beers

It all started on twitter (again). This time it happened while I was drinking a Ballast Point Big Eye IPA (see the video here) and waxing lyrical about the Centennial hop. Then a tweet popped up from Barry, of The Bitten Bullet fame, along the lines of ‘If you like Centennials then you’d like my homebrew hopped with Chinook and Centennial’. Fast-forward three weeks and there I was drinking it with Pete (that’s where we had awesome Spag Bol with Rochefort 8, by the way).

Now, I don’t have any experience with homebrew so didn’t really know what to expect. To be honest, without wishing to do any injustice to Barry, I was preparing myself for something drinkable but perhaps not comparable to the normal, commercial beers which I drink all the time. I was very wrong.
We started with Spiral Galaxy H1N1, a 5.2%, 35IBU single hop pale ale. I know Barry brewed this while house-bound due to swine flu, so there was a little inherent danger in this beer (a week later and I’m showing no symptoms…). It’s golden with a tropical fruit aroma, kind of like fruit salad sweets and passion fruit. The malt was really clean and crisp, biscuity. The bitterness was good and I could’ve drunk a lot of this one. I hadn’t heard about Galaxy hops before so it was good to see it in action. Anyone know any beers which use Galaxy?
Next came the Alternative Munster Altbier, a 4.6%, 38IBU Alt hopped with Northern Brewer and Hallertauer Perle. Barry tells me that it isn’t lagered, hence the ‘alternative’ in the name. I’m not a massive Alt fan, not really getting their point, but there was plenty going on in this: caramel, berries, brown bread, chocolate and an earthiness. Very nicely brewed, very clean and tasty.
Then we opened the one which kicked the whole thing off: Klosteiner Pale Ale, 5.9%, 40IBU and hopped with Chinooks and Centennials (that just reads like beer erotica to me). Now this really was something special. Deep orange-gold in colour with a great orangey, perfumed, fruity nose which went straight through into the taste, along with a caramel sweetness, giving loads of Centennial bite and a whole spectrum of oranges and citrus. Pfwoar! I wanted a lot more of this one but apparently I had the last bottle. Please brew it again!
Finally came the Bitten Bullet Barley Wine, a 10.5% beast, hopped with Cascades, Chinooks and Centennials with an IBU of 106. Wowza! We had this with an incredible oozing piece of gorgonzola and it was a real winner. The beer is big and brooding, as you’d expect. It has a huge hoppy aroma, like Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot, then beneath that it’s chocolate and dried and stone fruit. It’s earthy and unforgiving, there’s loads of burnt citrus, over-done brown bread toast and then more banging hops. Only 22 were made and I think Barry has the intention of aging them for quite a while, allowing the hops to mellow right down. He also sent a very rare version of this aged over oak chips with the specific instruction of not touching it until Christmas, when it’ll be a year old. I look forward to it.

Also in the box he shipped were a few German beers and a beer mustard. Herren Pils was pretty much my perfect pilsner, light and fruity and so drinkable (I had just spent five hours walking around Ikea though, so even this would've tasted like heaven). Boltens Ur-Alt was malty, nutty, bready and slightly roasty, although again, Alt’s not really my thing. And a Fassla Zwergla, a Bamberg Dunkel (Bamberg Dunkel sounds like a character from a Vonnegut novel…) which had a really nice simplicity to it with apples, toffee and toasted brown bread.

I like this homebrew thing. There's definitely something in it... All my expectations were blown away and I was massively impressed. These weren’t just good beers, these were excellently brewed beers that I’d want to drink again and again. If you would have placed these in front of me and asked my honest opinion, without any prior knowledge of them, I would’ve guessed a well established and quality commercial brewery. Barry, you should be very proud of those beers, now hurry up, get back to brewing and ship me some more over!

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Smoking Hops

I knew that hops were related to cannabis. This was just something I picked up on the way. I only realised quite how similar they were when I decided to smoke a few.

I was inspired by two sources, one was Stefan Gates’ Biscuit Tin Smoked Salmon from Gastronaut and the other was a post on the Thornbridge Brewers’ blog. The idea was simple: cook fish in the smoke of some fresh hops. Just like wood smoking with a twist. I got the hops from Pete, who got them from Hopdaemon Brewery. They were Cascades. I bought myself a fat piece of cod. I engineered myself a makeshift smoker. I was ready to go.

Stefan Gates uses an old biscuit/sweet tin and wire. I neither had an old sweet tin or wire so I grabbed a wok, lots of tin foil and the wire rack from the grill. Makeshift, like I said. I made a nest out of tin foil for the hops so they couldn’t escape, filling it with as many as I could. I placed this inside a huge wok and put the wire rack on top. For a lid I used more tin foil. Then I just lit the hob and let it heat up, placing the fish on the rack and covering to smoke for about 10 minutes. It’s easy.
The Cascade hops in their pre-smoked state were wonderfully earthy, spicy and fragrant with citrus, which I hoped this would come through into the fish. As the hops stated to warm up all the citrus aromas came out, this then turned into sweet tobacco, then to a massively worrying cannabis-perfumed cloud (‘Honestly officer, I’m just making my dinner’). This fug was when I was acutely aware of the relationship between hops and cannabis, but this soon developed into the relaxing smell of bonfires and burning, fresh wood.

Ten-minutes, and a kitchen full of smoke, later and it was done. But the taste? It’s really unique, interesting and powerful, unlike any other smoke flavour I’ve had before. Beyond the sweet fish it had the taste of a smell: bonfire smoke on a cold evening, plus faint hints of earthiness and even a little dry, herby, burnt citrus. I had mine with spicy noodles and a bottle of Jaipur which was fabulous with the fish - just sweet enough to soften any harsh edges.
It was an interesting experiment, that’s for sure, and something I want to try again. I was left worrying about possible after-effects of smoke inhalation which was perpetuated by a self-fulfilling paranoia (Am I going to get paranoid? I think I’m paranoid… Why aren't I paranoid?) and the fact that I couldn’t find anything about hop smoking online. There was some moderate panic that I may have also gassed myself and that I'd pass out any minute. All was well in the end though, I'm happy to report.

Some words of warning: I got into a lot of trouble for doing this. The house reeked of sticky, thick, sordid smoke for days. Pretty much everything had to be cleaned, including the actual fan extractor above the hob. But don’t let this put you off, just learn from my mistakes. Firstly, keep it covered so that the smoke doesn’t escape. Secondly, keep it covered so the smoke doesn’t escape! It’s the smoke which smells. It’ll be cooked in 10 minutes but leave it for longer if that worries you, just keep it covered. If you can use a sweet tin then I’m sure the smell wouldn’t be so bad, or it will at least be contained in its own little space. Alternatively, cook it on the barbeque.

Monday 14 September 2009

As-Live Tasting: BrewDog's Punk Monk

7.47pm: Hello all. It’s Sunday 13th September. The beer is poured. I’m sitting comfortably, staring at the super minimal label that is BrewDog’s Punk Monk - Punk IPA brewed with Belgian yeast.

7.49pm: It looks like Punk, that familiar gold. And it smells like Punk too, fruity with lycees and strawberries and caramel, but then beneath that there’s a little something extra, something cheeky and naughty, a little estery sweetness, banana, pineapple and passion fruit. It smells goooood.

7.50pm: And it tastes goooood too. Yup, I like this. It’s Punk, it’s still fruity and bitter but it has that cool Belgian twist at the end. What’s strange is that it’s very similar to the standard Punk – and I drink a lot of it, in fact I can’t remember a time in the last nine months when Punk hasn’t been in the fridge – but it just goes a little sideways, kind of like kissing your other half and they throw in a nibble of the bottom lip to surprise you.

7.52pm: Talking of surprises, has anyone noticed that BrewDog’s Punk recipe has changed? The original hop line-up was Chinook, Crystal and Motoeka but now it uses Chinook, Ahtanum and Nelson Sauvin. I don’t think I’ve noticed a change in taste so it’s been a smooth transition, I guess.

7.56pm: There isn’t an ABV listed on the label, so I guess it’s 6% still, although it doesn’t taste it… And while we’re on ABV, have you read about BrewDog’s newest beer, Nanny State? Their ‘response’ to the Tokyo* hysteria is to brew a 1.1%ABV beer (savvy and inevitable, really). I like this idea a lot, at least I did until I read that it has a projected IBU of 225, using 60kg of hops in a 20hl brew. To me this sounds mental. How to Disappear Completely is a brilliantly brutal beer but it’s really at the limit of drinkability for me, and it’s made drinkable by the astonishing body that the beer has. A 1.1% beer with that many hops is surely going to be like drinking over-stewed, killer hop tea? I appreciate how they are sticking to their esoteric guns and playing up to the braying crowd, but if BrewDog were to have brewed a 2% beer, pale and a little hoppy (a baby version of Punk, say), then I would’ve stood up and applauded and been first in line to drink a few pints of what could be an important step in low-ABV British brewing. Instead I’m left a little uncomfortable with the fact that this is going to be an all-out attack (on ‘the man’ and on the palate) using their full arsenal of hop grenades. Still, I shall wait until I try the beer…

8.04pm: Back to this fantabulous Punk Monk. I really am enjoying it. The bottle compares favourably with the cask stuff I drank in The Bull (now officially the best pub in Kent!) a few weeks ago, and if I ever see it on cask again then I will dive straight for it. Now I’m just waiting for a Wild Punk seeded with wild yeast and a Baby Punk (see previous comment).

8.08.pm: The beer is going down like a voracious fluffer and I want more. I have another bottle but it isn’t chilled. There’s something about the Belgian yeast and the fruity hops which makes for a really great beer, all gooseberries and pineapple and berries. In fact, I’m tempted to open a normal Punk now to compare…

8.12pm: I couldn’t resist: a bottle of Punk is now in front of me. A side-by-side was the only logical way of doing this, I guess. The Punk has a little less fruitiness in the aroma, but the lycee, strawberry, passion fruit and caramel are still there. Tasting it I can pick out the similarities but the differences are there too: more biscuity malt and a more potently dry bitter finish in the Punk compared to the Monk, and a greater range of flavour in the Monk, different fruits, more depth. Punk IPA is such a familiar taste to me that I could recognise it in seconds yet I’m drawn towards the Monk right now and I want more of it. I really do.

8.17pm: Right, that’ll do. I’m off to finish this Punk Off and read some blogs and talk some shit on twitter. If, and when, Punk Monk is for sale on the BrewDog website then I urge you to buy it. It’s really very good.

Sunday 13 September 2009

FAB POW! Spaghetti Bolognese and Rochefort 8

Sometimes food pairings come as an unprepared surprise. This was one of them times. I was at Pete’s house, I’d gone there to open a few beers. We’ve got Spag Bol for dinner, he told me. We’d had a few beers by the time we sat down to eat and we were just finishing a nice, fruity-bitter pale ale. What beer shall we have next then? was the question. There were about seven beers to choose from, one was Rochefort 8. Now Spaghetti Bolognese is something that I love and I eat it a couple of times a month. The thing with pairing a beer to an ‘everyday’ kind of meal is that it’s taken a little for granted, but the beauty is that a great pairing can really make a humble meal into something fantastic. That’s what the Rochefort 8 did. It’s a classic beer, absolutely cracking. It’s dried fruit sweet, smooth and rich, chocolatey, toasty and earthy and wonderfully drinkable for its 9.2%ABV. And it just works perfectly with Spag Bol. We poured the beer out, had a few mouthfuls of food, took a sip of the beer and then both looked at each other with one of those knowing smiles that said, you know what, that’s bloody good. I love finding these almost unexpected delights. We chose it because it was the only beer in the fridge which was remotely suitable to the dish. We chose it ‘just to see how it goes’. There was some knowledge that it could be a good pairing given the sweetness and the fresh bread quality in the beer, but it was one of those pleasant surprises. And as the beer itself is still one of those that I think of as being ‘special’, it transformed Spag Bol from a great dinner into a brilliant food and beer pairing. It’s totally worthy of this week’s FAB POW! Note: There isn’t a picture because I was too busy eating. But, to be honest, I think you all know what Spaghetti Bolognese looks like and I think you are all familiar with handsome tan Rochefort logo and that green eight. And I have paired Spaghetti Bolognese before, that time with Okell’s Aile, a smoky porter. That was a great pairing too, although it didn’t have the ‘special’ factor of the Rochefort 8.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

What the hell is an IPA?

I wrote this ages ago and have been tweaking it trying to work out if there’s any ‘story’ in it or if I’m just being pedantic and geeky. Reading Pete Brown’s Hops & Glory told me so much about IPA but it didn’t answer some of my specific thoughts about what IPA means to me right now (maybe that’s the next beer book – taking a massive, citrusy IPA on a rock band’s tour bus around the US to try and find out what IPA means to drinkers now?! Hops & Glory meets Almost Famous). Thankfully, my queries were partly confirmed in a post from Zak Avery last week, saying that IPA has become ‘a catch-all term for anything from a pale hoppy session ale to a profound, rasping hop-led assault on the senses’. It’s this that I’ve been trying to get to grips with.

We know the history of the IPA right? A pale ale brewed in England and transported to India, pale in colour and heartily hopped. The exact etymological difference between an IPA and a PA seems to simply be that the ‘I’ stands for India and that this ‘I’ has now come to mean more hops than a regular pale ale. But what does IPA really mean now?
If I see that a beer is an IPA then I generally expect that I’ll be getting something pale with a decent punch of bitterness in it, but the difference between some IPAs are incomparable. I’ve had some where hops barely seem to have dabbed their green leaves into the brews, while others have stripped my teeth. I’ve used the terms ‘old-school’ and ‘new-skool’ before in referring to IPAs and I think they work: the hops in the ‘old’ are English and earthy and spicy with berry fruits and grassy, herby, floral notes and a moderate bitterness (think White Shield, Meantime IPA), whereas the ‘new’ have got the citrus peel and pith, tropical fruits or the pine of super high-Alpha American hops (think Punk IPA, Stone IPA). They are very different. My feeling is that the essence of a new-skool IPA is very different to the essence of an old-school IPA: old-schoolers were brewed for purpose as much as it was for flavour; new-skool are brewed to smack you in the face with a citrus fist and then be wonderfully drinkable. One has history and the other is the in-your-face, hot young upstart.
There are so many IPAs in the market but what I want to know is: Has the term IPA evolved into something way different to what it began as or have the boundaries just been stretched to be all-encompassing and include sub-styles and off-shoots of what was once known as an IPA? Should the use of ‘points’ where an 'I.P.A.' is the old-school India Pale Ale while an 'IPA' denotes the new-skool? Is it even necessary to know that it’s an abbreviation? Does IPA have its own unique connotations that are separate from India Pale Ale now? New-skool IPAs have ABVs which generally range from 5.5-7% and their IBUs stretch anywhere from 40-100+). Then there are double and imperial IPAs with ABVs up to 20% and IBUs up to levels where the body thinks it might actually be killed by this bitter poison. Old-schoolers are anywhere from 4-7% (I’d argue that a lot of the sub-5%ers are not technically IPAs but are just using the term to stick a fashionable label on their beer, plus these sub-5%ers are modern incarnations which are probably not worthy of the name they give themselves) but you don’t get many English-style double IPAs (Halcyon is a rare and delicious exception and I want to say JJJ too but I think it's a bit of an old-school-new-skool mash-up), and why is this? Perhaps the earthy hop bitterness doesn’t do so well when it’s used to monster-up a beer, maybe you just don’t get the easy drinking quality that the US hops give. And maybe now’s the time to point out the new Belgian style IPAs too? A collusion of English, Belgian and American.
Let’s take an example: BrewDog. I count that they have eight IPAs. Punk IPA is their postmodern classic new skool style beer (nine if you count Punk Monk, which is Punk brewed with a Belgian yeast, and flipping fantastic it is too). Chaos Theory is 7.1%, copper coloured and hopped with the new-skool beau that is the Nelson Sauvin. Storm is an 8% IPA aged old-school style in new-skool Islay whisky casks. Atlantic IPA is an earthy 8% brew made from a 200-year old recipe and aged in oak at sea (old-school at its roots, albeit with a new-skool twist). Hardcore IPA is 9% and proper in-your-face hop bomb. Zephyr is a 12.5% IPA aged in a whisky barrel with fresh strawberries. A Black IPA is on its way soon (we won’t even get started on that one!). And finally, although not technically called an IPA by the brewery, How To Disappear Completely, a 3.5% pale ale/imperial mild with 198IBUs. They are IPAs but they are all vastly different. It doesn’t seem logical that an IPA is now just a pale and hoppy beer because that is such a generic way of describing it, plus not all that many are even all that pale (I won’t start on the colour scale).
Maybe it’s just a British reserve verses an American super-sizing. Maybe I’m trying to make something out of nothing. Maybe I’m just writing this to spark off some questions about style. Maybe there are no answers. Maybe that’s just how it is now. The Brewers Association this year listed over 130 beer styles, including a few different IPAs. They differentiate between US and English and qualify it by saying this: ‘English and citrus-like American hops are considered enough of a distinction justifying separate American-style IPA and English-style IPA categories or subcategories.’ Does this answer any questions?

An ‘IPA’ is a vast and wide area, encompassing so much that it's hard to know what to expect from anything labeled this way anymore, particularly when it comes to UK beers (how many pump clips have I seen with IPA on recently?!). But is this just the nature of brewing developments and the natural branching and progression that comes with any style? Or does it show a change in taste and mentality? Is it something else? What the hell is an IPA? And, out of interest, what are your favourite IPAs?

Tuesday 8 September 2009

The Crown Jewels/A Royal Twit

As with a lot of things nowadays, it started on twitter. Andy from Beer Blog posted that he was drinking a 10.3% chilli beer from Crown Brewery, Sheffield. Having met Stu, the brewer from Crown Brewery, at GBBF, I asked nicely and he agreed to bring me a few bottles when we were both at the opening of the new Thornbridge Brewery. Social networking at its very best.

Stu brought me three bottles: Unpronounceable IPA, Wheat Stout and Ring of Fire - a veritable threesome if ever there was one (in human form these beers would make a crazy-cool punk girl band). The brewery is based in the cellar of The Hillsborough Hotel, making the beers downstairs and selling them upstairs alongside a selection of other casks (they twitter the beer list in photo form - I wish more pubs would tweet to say what’s on).

I started off with the Unpronounceable IPA. It’s a punchy 7% and pours a royal crown gold with a fluffy white head. It’s hopped with 5kg of Bramling Cross (5kg in a 4 brl plant) and they come straight out in a plume of earthy blackberries – it’s got a great nose, really fruity and juicy and reminiscent of picking berries from the bushes with pink-stained fingers. There’s a great kick of bitterness to begin and then it gives way to more fruity berries and hints of apple sucky sweets. It’s easy drinking, full flavoured and really very good, plus it’s a nice adversary to the super-hopped US-style IPAs that I’ve been gulping back recently. Nice one.

Next came Wheat Stout, a 6.6% thick black oil slick with a great looking bubbly brown head. The nose had me doing somersaults trying to work out exactly what I was getting and I never quite got to the bottom of it. What I did get was roasty and dark, chocolatey, spicy like wheat beer and slightly creamy. All of these come through in the taste department too, with more spice and coffee and a dry berry fruit bitterness in there as well. There’s also a sweetness which reminded me of oyster stout. Really interesting and enjoyable.

I saved Ring of Fire to last and I don’t mind admitting that I was pretty scared about opening this thing. My previous experience in this field is Crazy Ed’s Chili Beer which is just about the worst thing I’ve ever tasted (on a side note, my mate loves super spicy food so we made him strawpedo a bottle of Crazy Ed’s one day, he’s never been the same since…). So it was with some trepidation that I popped the cap of this 10.3% beast brewed with fresh peppers and poured out a headless deep and dangerous chilli con carne brown beer with fiery red edges. I dipped my nose in and tentatively sniffed, fearing an olfactory burn but you know what, it smelled bloody lovely – dried fruits and stone fruits like a barley wine and then right at the end, like a cheeky little surprise, comes the fresh and slightly warming aroma of chilli (you know the one you get when chopping them, an earthy aroma, a little fruity, like fresh green peppers). But what about the taste… I was still worried at this point, not wanting to scold my lips, but there was none of that at all, no vicious burn, no hellish flames and instead it has that barley wine taste of a sweet, full bodied and richly fruity brew and then right at the end the chillis come in like a garnish of fresh green peppers – it tingles but it doesn’t burn and this warming tingle is really fascinating as it builds throughout. This beer seriously surprised and impressed me, in fact all of the beers did.

It started with a tweet and me asking for a few bottles of beer. Now I think there could be some pretty cool adventures to be had with twitter, think Yes Man with Tweets or Six-Degrees of Separation. “Come to Sheffield and stay at The Hillsborough”, Stu said to me on the way to Thornbridge, “they’ve got eight handpumps.” I might just take him up on that one day, although it might take a tweet to persuade me.

Some notes: Andy at Beer Blog (and Chilli Up North) has also written about Ring of Fire and Unpronounceable IPA. Stu has a blog here. Follow us all on twitter, you never know what you might happen. I couldn’t decide on which title to go for so I went with both. And I did listen to Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire while drinking the beer, it felt right.

Sunday 6 September 2009

Gooey Chocolate Puddings

This is my favourite dessert recipe in the whole wide world. And just to forewarn you, this pudding is so good that whoever you serve it to will fall madly and deeply in love with you, so just watch who you give it to...

I’ve had this recipe written since January and just haven’t got around to posting it, but the time has come to unleash this dessert and change the world by pairing it with some awesome beers.

The chocolate pudding is feather-light on the outside, hot, rich and gooey in the middle and it’s enough to melt even an iron heart. Pair this with the right beer and it turns all magical and supernatural. But what beer? Some would go straight for the cherry beer, and this is wise, no doubt, but there are better beers to pour with this. Personally, I’m thinking a big coffee stout. Here’s why: coffee stouts and chocolate are killer combos. It’s all about the lustful coming together of sweet chocolate and roasty-bitter coffee beer: it just works. But you need a big coffee beer, something full-bodied, imperial, rich and strong enough to leave you wired. It’s a real pick-me-up pairing, like a do-it-yourself tiramisu (I have to make tiramisu with coffee stout in the base one day…) where the chocolate soothes and the coffee kicks.

The pudding recipe has never failed me and it’s incredible. The pudding coats the tongue in the way that only good chocolate can and then the beer glides in and lifts it all away, making you want more and more and more… But there are careful steps needed to get that oh-so-important gooey centre. First, I add grated chocolate to the mix. Second, I add a little contingency square of chocolate in the centre. Third, make the mix a few hours before you need it (this is helpful anyway) and then chill it. Fourth, bake it for exactly 10 minutes at 220C – no more, no less.

Gooey Chocolate Puddings

This makes 6 puddings.

  • 200g dark chocolate (or part and part with milk chocolate)
  • 150g butter, plus some for lining the dishes
  • Pinch sea salt
  • 3 whole eggs and 3 yolks
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 20g plain flour
  • Cocoa powder for dusting

Line the ramekins with butter and sprinkle cocoa into each so it all sticks to the butter. Melt 150g of the chocolate with the butter (in a glass bowl over a pan of bubbling water) and add a pinch of sea salt. While that’s melting whisk the eggs, yolks and sugar until they are pale and creamy. When the chocolate is done take it off the heat for a minute, in that minute grate a few chunks of chocolate (leaving six squares behind) into the egg/sugar mix then add the melted chocolate and butter and stir through gently. Next add the flour and stir into a pudding mix. Pour into the ramekins and pop a square of chocolate into the middle of each one. Chill until you need it.

To cook the puddings the oven must be preheated to 220C – exactly 220C. Add the ramekins and watch the clock very closely. As soon as ten minutes are up take them out, run a knife around the edge and turn them out onto a plate.

I like this served with ice cream. The first time I tried it I had it with a coffee ice cream and that was super but I personally think a more subtle ice cream would be best, and something like the RipTide Stout Ice Cream would be spot on. Another excellent choice would be a banana ice cream (coffee, chocolate and banana is a truly great combo). Or just go for a good vanilla ice cream.

As for the beer, I’d jump straight to Mikkeller and grab the Beer Geek Breakfast, or even better, the Beer Geek Brunch Weasel (I wrote about that here). I’ve had the puddings with BrewDog’s Coffee Imperial Stout, as the picture shows, and that was fantastic. You could try the Meantime Coffee but I think it might struggle to deal with the awesomeness of the dessert. If you can’t do a coffee beer then go for a straight up imperial stout - Thornbridge’s Bracia would kick serious pudding-fattened ass, Stone’s Imperial Russian Stout or a sublime De Struise Black Albert. The dessert deserves good beer, the dessert demands good beer. But remember the cautionary words at the beginning: whoever you serve this to will fall wildly in love with you.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Thornbridge’s Riverside Brewery

All I really wanted was a great pint of Jaipur, I thought to myself as I spent hours on a train staring out the window as the countryside blurred into a deeper green. It’d been ages since I last had Jaipur and I was missing it terribly. When I (or we – I ventured up with Brad who is resurrecting Ale Affinity) told people that I’d come up from Kent for the day they looked surprised. When I said I was going back tonight they were even more surprised. To me, the trip to see the new Thornbridge brewery was a no-brainer.
Having been to the old place beside the grand Thornbridge Hall I didn’t know what to expect from the new place other than a lot of silver (these videos hinted at the shiny future). What I found was a vastly impressive modern site, a cool bar space, newly branded bottles and pump clips, a phenomenal brewing space, a groovy Volkswagen and most importantly, more Jaipur than I could possibly drink.
The bar area is glass-fronted, large and bright with huge pump clips on the wall around a quote from Michael Jackson (as I’m moving into a new flat soon this gave me plenty of good ideas, now I just need to convince Lauren that painting cool quotes on the wall is good and I need to convince Thornbridge to send me a giant logo). This is where I got my first Jaipur and it was everything I remember it being: fruity, full-bodied, hoppy, rich yet still delicate and so fresh. Wonderful.
First sight of the actual brew house came when Garrett Oliver opened her up. Now, I haven’t been to all that many breweries but this is nothing like anything I’ve seen before. I expected giant silver bullet-like tanks and I got them and more. I expected technology and I got that and more. I expected to be impressed and I got that and more. I want to be able to write about the brewing stuff but won’t through fear of getting it completely wrong (I’d just finished my third beer by the time the tour with Kelly started). Zak had his notebook out and so I thought I’d better do the same (following the lead of the Beer Writer of the Year, of course) but I only ended up writing seven words and one of those I got wrong and had to correct later. Instead, I’ll put some pictures up and hopefully that’ll show what it’s like.
As a drinker foremost, the important piece of information is this: they will be able to brew over 10-times the volume of beer. There have only been 12 brews at the new place so far (’12 brews in so far’ were five of the seven words I wrote down) and I get the impression that minor tweaks are being made to make it perfect, but we tasted the first batch brewed and Jaipur tastes like Jaipur and that makes me smile.

The new site couldn’t be more different than the old place but the personal touch isn’t lost in its size or in how the computer software remotely runs the place. The personal touch isn’t lost because of the people who are making the beer. And that’s what it always comes down to and that’s why I write about beer: it’s all about the people. It’s them who make a place what it is, whether it’s a small outbuilding or a super-modern plant. I met them at The Rake, I drank their beer at The Bull, I went to brew with them for the day, now the new Riverside brewery and every time they impress me more. To paraphrase and add my own spin, Garrett Oliver deconstructed the brewery in his opening speech, and this works just right: Thornbridge successfully combines British tradition, Italian style, the audaciousness of the US craft brewing scene and a Kiwi spirit of fun and adventure. It’s Innovation, Passion and Knowledge and now a lot more beer.

Some notes on the pictures: Notice the bald/grey heads in the shot of Jim and Garrett Oliver. The giant Jaipur is the new pumpclip. That busty lady is part of the new branding for the bottles. The VW is cool. The silver things make beer.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

The Swan on the Green

There’s a microbrewery/brewpub near me called the Swan on the Green. I love the idea of brewpubs and wish there were more of them. It seems to me that there are a lot more US brewpubs than English, but attaching the brewery to the restaurant is surely a great way to sell your beers and to make an income from food too. The Swan on the Green brew the beer out the back and serve it out the front; that’s a pretty good system, I think. It’s a modernised 16th century pub in the middle of quintessential Kent countryside, opposite a tiny, banking cricket pitch and surrounded by old houses. It’s a handsome looking place, that’s for sure. Lauren and I went along on Friday to celebrate me getting a new job. I got quite drunk. She drove me home.

Let’s start with food. Their menu is good, with a decent range of fare, exactly the sort of things you’d want to eat in a country pub: hunks of meat, fresh fish, lots of vegetables, different potato dishes. I went a year or so ago and enjoyed the food more than this time, but it was still very nice. My steak was perfectly cooked, my potatoes perfectly nice, the sauce a perfect accompaniment. Lauren’s salad-thing was good too, big sweet pieces of squash, lots of green things, I can’t remember what else... So yeah, a decent meal if unexceptional, but I was there for the beer, of course.

They had six Swan beers on which gave me a half of each and then another half or two after (time restricting – we had to get back for Big Brother, you see). I started on the lager and my half was the last of the keg. Blonde is 4.0%, cold and fizzy and then a whole lots more. It’s biscuity and buttery in a good way and there’s a really great citrusy hop finish. Towards the end it had a grape-like quality to it and actually reminded me of champagne. Very nice; the best lager I’ve had in ages. Next I had Ginger Swan, a 3.6% copper ale (they are all copper coloured…) brewed with ginger ‘and other spices’. Now I’m not a lover of ginger beers… until now! This has a great fresh ginger quality beneath a blackcurrant and raspberry fruit aroma which goes straight through into the taste. It’s fragrant, fresh and fruity with just enough zing to bring it alive.

Then I had the Fuggles Pale, a 3.6% session ale, hopped, I would guess, with Fuggles. It’s crisp and clean, easy drinking with some sherberty sweetness but just a little nothingy compared to the others – not bad, just a little lacking. With my steak I had the Bewick Swan, a 5.3% bitter with a great body of fruity malt and a proper bite of English hops. It worked perfectly with the steak, pairing with the peppery sauce and juicy meat.

After dinner came a Trumpeter Best, a 4.0% best bitter hopped with Target and First Gold. It has a great aroma of brown bread, overripe apples and dryly bitter-herby finish and it’s another classic British bitter. And then was Cygnet, a 4.2% a hopped with Cascades. It was fruity and crisp and bitter and a really enjoyable brew, one I could drink quite a few of. Then, with Big Brother looming, we had time for one more half and I was completely torn with what to go for: I wanted the lager again to try a fresh barrel, I wanted the Cygnet again because, well, it tasted nice, but in the end I went for the Ginger Swan because I was really impressed with the spicy-fruity playful nature of the beer.

The beers from the Swan on the Green microbrewery surprised me. It’s not that I expected them to be bad, I just didn’t expect them to be as tasty as they were and it was great to drink a lot of sub-premium strength beers, brewed with lots of flavour just a few miles from my door.

The thing with getting this new job is that Lauren and I will be moving and it just so happens that the Swan on the Green will be a little bit closer than it is now. That’s a very good thing.

Oh and if you go then watch out for the toilets. They don’t have male or female on the doors, instead the choice is Cobs or Pens painted beneath a white swan. After a few beers I must’ve stood there for ten seconds working out which was which eventually choosing the wrong door. FYI: male swans are called cobs.